All Good Things Around Us
There are words which, when we read or hear them, evoke a whole series of thoughts and mind pictures. Particularly is this true of those nouns which are connected with seasons or anniversaries. Christmas, Easter, summer holidays lie within the category, as do birthdays, barbecues and New Year Eve parties. But for my part, one of the most evocative of such words is “harvest”.
Strictly speaking, in these modern times, any month in the year may see harvesting of some fruit, flower, or vegetable; and fish, fowl or animal is killed regardless of the time of year, that the flesh may be prepared for the table. Strawberries at Christmas, raspberries in the spring, turkey in the summer, and pork even when there is no “r” in the month, no longer surprise us. But, tradition dies hard, and harvest-time is firmly fixed in the calendar as being linked with autumn. The “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”, as Keats so memorably described it.
To think of harvest is to see in the mind’s eye the colours of autumn – brown, gold, yellow, rusty red and orange predominating. The multitudinous shades of dying leaves; chrysanthemums and Michaelmas daisies in their glory; the golden brown of ripening corn; hips, haws and berries in shades of red and orange, are the heralds proclaiming the end of summer and the approach of winter. There is a chill in the damp air, a rustle of dead leaves under the feet, a watery touch to the sunshine as the acrid scent of bonfires wafts over the hedge.
It is a time when churches and chapels are filled with products of the earth, perfuming the air with that instantly recognisable heavy, sweet smell associated with a well-stocked green-grocer’s shop. We sing again those well-remembered harvest hymns with lusty tunes and insistent rhythms. Thoughts turn to the fruitfulness of the planet, the mystery of life, the cycle which leads to death followed by renewal in the Spring, the tiny capsule which is, in embryo, a towering tree. The seeds which were scattered have come to fruitfulness, the barns should be filled, and the freezers re-stocked.
All seasons have their champions, and by no means least are the many who welcome the autumn.
This morning, at this, our celebration, three points I would like to make, three thoughts selected from an abundance to share with you.
Nearly three and a half centuries ago, small family groups endured great privation as they sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, to found colonies in a land they called New England. The driving force behind the exodus was a burning desire to worship according to their beliefs, free from persecution, something they were unable to do in their country of birth. They landed, tilled the virgin soil and then, when the first precious harvests were gathered in, celebrated with services of thanksgiving. Thus the American Annual Thanksgiving Day was established. In essence it is a national Harvest Festival Day.
To those early colonists the success of the harvest literally was a matter of life or death. The thanksgiving celebrations were heartfelt. Joy was mixed with relief, for starvation was the price to pay for a failed harvest. Harvest and thanksgiving were naturally linked. Their labours had been rewarded, and the maker who had preserved their going out now blessed their gathering in.
To-day in America and in Britain, as in most of what is normally described as the developed world, the division between good and bad harvests is not so starkly observed. Walk round the shelves of any supermarket and note the country of origin of the foodstuffs displayed. Fruit shipped from South Africa, wines bottled in South America, rice harvested in the Far East, lamb produced from sheep grazing in New Zealand, cocoa and coffee grown near the Equator, tea gathered in India and China, fish netted in the arctic circle, coconut and bananas garnered on tropical islands, potatoes from nearby Lincolnshire, olive oil crushed from the fruit of trees thriving on Italian hillsides.
We know not, perhaps care not, whether the harvest failed or was plentiful in Timbuktu or Turkistan. Any gaps on the shelves resulting from a disastrous harvest in one place will be filled by importing from lands where the rains came, but not the floods, where the sun shone and the storms held off, where pests were held at bay and the plants flourished.
But we need reminding that appreciation of the narrowness of the division between life on the one hand, or death from starvation on the other, is a daily reality in much of the world, notably in large parts of the continents of Africa and Asia. The majority of the world’s population still live as precariously as did those early American settlers. A successful harvest is a matter for joy, relief and thankfulness. Failure of the harvest by contrast is to despair, to succumb to hunger, disease and death.
This then must be a time for reflection as well as one for rejoicing. To the majority of us harvest may be a matter of academic interest, but for millions of others it is quite starkly a matter of survival. Farmers in Europe, of which we are a part, and elsewhere are bribed to let land lie fallow lest too much food is produced. By contrast, elsewhere in the world a bare subsistence is scratched from arid landscapes, whilst the farmer, with increasing anxiety or resignation, scans the cloudless sky praying that the rains will come. No supermarket shelf offers him a buffer from the harsh facts of life, or of death.
The rejoicing at our bounty must be contrasted with a shameful inability to distribute the fruits of the earth with anything approaching equity.
Of course great efforts are made, though arguably not great enough, to distribute aid to the needy in third world countries hit by famine, by disasters or so-called “acts of God” (surely a gross misnomer when so often the calamity results from the greed or indifference of mankind). But these efforts which enable others to subsist rather than live full lives must be massively extended.
That then is my first point. Thanksgiving should not obliterate the recognition that whilst we have so much, others have so little. The challenge remains to not merely produce, but also to distribute equitably, to share that which we have.
My second point is to emphasise that enthusiasm in gathering in the harvest can easily deteriorate into greed. Once, when similes were sought to describe something as countless, not only were comparisons made with grains of sand on the sea-shore, or the stars in the firmament, but also the number of fish in the sea might be evoked as a comparison. The harvest of the sea can no longer be spoken of as infinite. Over-fishing and greed have put the lie to that. Once plentiful species now face extinction.
The productivity of previously fertile land is virtually nil where the landscape is turned to dust-bowl and desert. Thoughtlessness, carelessness and avarice has given us salmonella in eggs and poultry, together with BSE in cattle. Widespread use of artificial fertilisers, pesticides and fungicides have polluted our rivers and seas, and led to fears about the water we drink.
There is an old saying which speaks of reaping that which we sow. A line in a well-known and much-loved hymn goes,
“Who sows the false shall reap the vain.”
Let us in giving thanks for the harvest give thought to the need to look at the quality of the harvest as well as its size. Let us sow with care and be circumspect as we reap. Let us also bear responsibility to secure the harvests for future generations.
The harvest is an annual event. To give no thought for the morrow, to recklessly imperil the harvests of next year and the following years, is not only to risk our future, but to hazard the well-being of our children and our children’s children.
The Old Testament story of a covenant made by God with his people that “..seed-time and harvest….shall never cease”, is at risk if irresponsibility and greed are our watch-words.
So to my first point about the need to distribute equitably, to share what we have gained, is added my second point. We must be prudent in harvesting, responsible in producing, and save the seed-corn to safe-guard the future.
And so on to my third thought. It concerns life itself. Its mystery, its preciousness, its uniqueness.
Life gives continuity. For life, whether animal or vegetable, has this ability to reproduce itself. We gather in today’s crop in the full expectation that tomorrow’s crop will be there for the picking, because life is handed on from generation to generation. The fossil fuels we burn in our generators are finite – once burnt are gone. But life has this infinite quality which enables it, through its seed, to hand on existence from generation to generation.
And our continued existence is dependent upon consumption of life. Our food is produced from living plants and living animals. Our lives are in this sense utterly dependent upon other lives. The living crops we reap provide towards our survival.
But though life is resilient, it is not indestructible. We may be able to build barns to store the products of the field, but the life which decides that those crops shall grow and produce is something which we cannot create. Only life creates new life. Arrogance and carelessness about our actions will lead to disaster and the destruction of this precious and irreplaceable asset of the life-force itself.
So my third plea is for humility and respect in our dealing with life in all its forms.
And so I preach my Trinity on this harvest day. Humility and respect for life; responsibility in our actions, not only for our sake, but that we may be blessed rather than cursed by those who will follow us; and, finally, an acceptance of the doctrine that the fruits of the earth belong not to one man, but to all men and women.
Some say that harvest festivals began as a pagan rite. So be it if that is the case. But the harvest Trinity I preach is firmly embedded in the christian ethic. May the day come when preaching and practice are indistinguishable. Now that would be a harvest to remember.
C. J. Rosling 13 October 1996
Mexborough 13 October 1996
Hucklow 12 October 1997